SHEPHERDSTOWN – Thomas L. Trumble isn’t entirely joking when he says it took 40 years to write “Speak the Word Only,” his new play that debuts here this weekend.
“I couldn’t have written this years ago,” explains Trumble, who served in Vietnam as an adviser to an armoured cavalry unit in late 1969 and through 1970.
In the play, a soldier coming home to the woman he loves responds to her longing for life “back the way it was” by explaining: “I can’t go from Vietnam to zero in just a day or two.’’
Spirits make up several of characters in his play, the 67-year-old Trumble said, including registered nurse Carol Ann Drazba, who narrates. Drazba, a Pennsylvania native killed in a helicopter crash near Saigon in 1966, and fellow nurse Elizabeth Jones were the first female service members to die in Vietnam.
“She’s the moral arbitrator of the play,” Trumble explains. “She’s in the war, but not of the war – not in the killing zone, but she sees what the soldiers see.”
To create the work, Trumble drew not only on his war experiences but also on his family’s long service in the military. His grandfather served in World War I, his father and an uncle served in WWII, he said, along with “various other relatives, going all the back to the Indian wars.”
“This isn’t a shoot-’em-up,” Trumble said of the drama, to be performed at the Shepherdstown Opera House Friday and Saturday nights and again Sunday afternoon. “It’s about values – love, honor – and how soldiers become comrades. That’s different from friendship or brotherhood. What compels a man to cover another man’s body so that he doesn’t get killed?”
Trumble, born in Minnesota and raised in Texas and New Jersey, as a teenager joined the ROTC after enrolling at Rutgers University in 1962 – a path that led to his assignment in Vietnam by decade’s end.
After the war, Trumble enrolled in grad school at American University in Washington, where he studied political statistics. Though much of America had begun protesting the war in Vietnam, Trumble made the decision to stay in the military as part of the Army Reserves.
He spent years raising two children with his wife and working as a consultant with a firm in Bethesda, Md. Upon retirement, the Trumbles moved to Shenandoah Junction, where they began to restore a 19th-century farmhouse. He also embarked on a second career of community service, including joining the Jefferson County Planning Commission.
Writing the play — his first work of fiction — and working with actors to bring the story to life on stage offered him the chance to work through experiences he, like many veterans, had kept quiet about for decades.
“The play is set in the Vietnam era, but it really has to do with issues that all soldiers face,” Trumble said. “We ask soldiers to leave home to fight a war and then they have to come back home from the war. This play has to do with all the issues that soldiers face – including the soliders who are coming home today from Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Trumble said he never heard his father or uncle share any of what they saw during World War II or talk about any of the tough decisions they faced.
You go to war and you do terrible and difficult things,” he said. “For most of us, these are some of the most intense experiences of our entire lives. And most of us never talk about them to anyone, even those we’re closest with.”
It’s Trumble’s hope that veterans who come out to one of this weekend’s performances leave with a desire to open up to a spouse, parent, friend or other loved one.
“If this play provokes some conversations, then I’ll be very satisfied,” he said.